Tim Keilty is the new leader of the EarthTec division at design/build contractor GeoStructures. At EarthTec, which provides mechanically stabilized earth retaining walls and wall-related products, Keilty has big plans for the federal and sustainable building markets. SmartBrief interviewed Keilty on his approach to leadership, and what it takes for a contracting firm to get government contracts. An edited version of his answers follows.

You have a new job in an industry that has faced decimating job losses over the past few years. What has helped you hold on and adapt to changing times and how can you frame that as advice to others?

There is no doubt it is tough out there, and no company is immune to the current economic pressures. However, I’ve found success in three areas:

Embracing change. As a young Cadet at Virginia Military Institute 25 years ago, I learned how to survive in an academic, mental and physical pressure cooker. Adjusting to unexpected change was a key component of building character. Resisting change and deferring to status quo in today’s rapidly changing environment can be devastating to one’s professional career. Organizations and their employees that are wired to persevere through adverse conditions will find they are well positioned for long-term employment and success.

Job ownership. Whether I was a partner or an employee, I’ve always taken ownership of my position. This means treating everything I do as if I’m the owner of the company, even spending the time to find a lower-cost hotel when traveling on company business. This level of accountability helps set the standards for success throughout the company.

Attitude. When things are going badly and water cooler discussions are focused on the negatives, that is a “leadership” moment. I step up and promote the positives, offer direction and get involved in setting goals. A positive attitude goes a long way.

One of your interests appears to be in mentoring and coaching young leaders. What sparked your interest in and why do you invest your time in it?

Everyone should have a mentor. My father is a lifelong learner and taught me the strength and value of education. When my first company, BridgeTek, was launched in 1994, I had way more questions than answers. I turned to three industry leaders who were more than happy to share their wisdom, and I continue to reach out and receive fantastic advice from all three.

I invest my time in mentoring and coaching as an opportunity to “pay it forward.” Growing up in business can be like going through puberty — who wants to do that again? I regularly engage young staffers to help them problem solve and see how their issues fit into a bigger picture. Sometimes it’s only a matter of sharing an interesting article or book, but they appreciate it because someone has taken an interest in their future and they have an edge in avoiding pitfalls that historically have a way of repeating themselves.

What has been the single-most important concept you’ve learned in your tenure as an employee and leader?

You must be present to win! Whether you are trying to close a big contract, receiving clarification on an important construction detail or having an important family discussion, it is always better to meet face to face. Relying on technology to convey an important point, and certainly one where emotions are involved, can be costly.

In your previous position, you grew the firm’s business with the federal government. What particular strategies can you suggest to other firms that want to do work with federal agencies, particularly now that stimulus funding is not as prevalent?

The federal market is very complex with many moving parts and multiple touch points. It would be naïve to suggest that a firm doing business in the private sector could reinvent itself overnight and find success. Firms need to plan on investing months, even years, in developing federal business, beginning with a complete evaluation of value proposition, corporate vision, core competencies and personnel. Without this, a lot of resources get wasted and it can even be catastrophic to an undisciplined organization.

Smart firms with government experience have already planned for the post-stimulus environment with an eye toward projects at the state and local level, public-private partnerships or the smaller federal pie.

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